There is a shift happening in East Bay Libraries, in California. One after
another, hiring managers are inviting librarian candidates to the interview
table who do not have a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS). The rumblings of this shift have been felt for years, with some
library systems, like Hayward Public Libraries, no longer requiring an MLIS for entry-level librarians positions, and others, like Pleasanton Public Library, not requiring the MLIS for any librarian roles, from entry level through managerial. Alameda County Library (ACL) changed librarian job specifications to encompass non-MLIS candidates in the more recent past, and Contra Costa County Library (CCCL) has followed in their footsteps effective October 1, 2021. Administrators from various other East Bay library systems, including Oakland Public Library (OPL), are taking a hard look at their own librarian job specifications. Library leaders, keen to address equity gaps and racial disparities among library staff, are opening the field to a wider pool of candidates.
Orlando Guzman, an Advanced Level Library Assistant at Bay Point Branch of CCCL, holds that the way to make libraries more diverse is by “opening [jobs] to people with alternative yet compatible, beneficial skills and experiences for today’s public library world, and serving the public in a more experiential and expansive way.”
This sentiment has been growing for about a decade. In 2013, in a Library Journal editorial, Michael Kelley challenged “can’t we have a fraternal, respected, and smart profession without over-reliance on an expensive and unnecessarily exclusionary credential? Last year our neighbors to the north, the Ontario (Canada) Library Association held a series of three live panel discussions about this very topic, with librarians at a range of career-levels and job descriptions. The first panel was asked the following: “A master’s degree in library science should be required for anyone wanting to be a librarian. True or False? And why?” Three of the four panelists did not consider the MLS to be indispensable to the profession.
Minimum qualifications vary by state, and California has no formal requirement of certification, but Bay Area libraries have had a practice of requiring the MLIS for public librarian positions. The precedent goes back over seventy years.
Library schools have been training librarians in this country since 1887, most issuing a Bachelor of Science (BS) until a 1923 report by C.C. Williamson, paid for by the Carnegie Corporation, advocated for librarian training to be more theoretical and to follow a foundational four year
education. Colleges increasingly began offering the MLIS and, by 1951, almost all library programs were graduate level when the American Library Association (ALA) Board of Education for Librarianship stipulated the master’s as a professional standard for librarianship.
As the library community begins to look at rolling back the prescriptive MLIS, fresh staff development opportunities and challenges are exposed. Library administrators are tasked to consider what is fundamentally necessary for performing well in this vocation, and what are the ethical responsibilities underlying library services, in which all library
staff should be fluent.
A LOOK AT 3 EAST BAY (CA) LIBRARIES
ALAMEDA COUNTY LIBRARY
ACL is a ten-branch system that spans one of the most racially and culturally diverse counties in the nation. Deputy Director Deb Sica
says that the decision to drop the MLIS requirement developed out of library administrators’ respect for the institutional knowledge of career staff. So they expanded prerequisites to include an alternative of two internal years as a Library Assistant II, which built upon experience as a Library Assistant I. Though the Librarian III position does still require an MLIS, and is reserved for more specialized central roles, like collection management and systemwide coordination of services, Sica believes the requirement may be reconsidered for this classification, as well.
What is new these days at ACL is that they have added a new Library Assistant position, which is for them an intermediate classification between a paraprofessional and a professional, what Sica describes as librarian neutral: “When people walk into the library, they look at everybody as librarians. They actually don’t care what your degree is as long as
you can help them. They do care if you’re reflective of themselves.” This position offers paraprofessionals a significant salary bump and empowers front line staff to assist with either circulation duties or reference, following service needs as they evolve.
At ACL, orientation of all staff, from Library Page to Librarian, is the same. New library employees are onboarded together for hands-on training and an introduction to a shared vision for the organization. The aim of this strategy is to foster cross-classification discussions and mutually supportive cohorts as employees settle into their respective jobs.
CONTRA COSTA COUNTY LIBRARY
encompass exper-ience and education outside of an MLIS, a process that has been in the works for three years, with library board approval granted in September of this year. In this revised classification model, while a Librarian II is considered to have journey-level aptitude, meaning they have fully mastered the knowledge and skills required for the job, and can be a mentor to others. Like at ACL, the Librarian III is considered a specialist position, yet this position no longer requires an MLIS at CCCL. Still in the works is a comprehensive internal training program to prepare librarians who get hired without the MLIS. Library Director Alison McKee says that right now they are gathering information and assessing their internal training program to develop an onboarding strategy. She says, “I think what’s needed in the community and on the job has changed drastically over the last couple of decades whereas what has traditionally been taught
as part of the MLIS program have been skills that aren’t necessarily required anymore, these hard . . .librarian skills . . . as opposed to things you can learn on the job or learn through community education.”
OAKLAND PUBLIC LIBRARY
Oakland Public Library
Not far behind, OPL administrators
are being deliberate in their
approach, observing neighboring
libraries and reaching out to gather
information about how other systems
are moving forward. OPL is an
incorporated urban library system located in the county seat of Alameda County. It is mediumsized, with a Main Library, an African American Museum and Library (AAMLO), and sixteen branches throughout the vibrant city of Oakland.
Nina Lindsay, the Deputy Director at OPL, is particularly interested in the idea of offering entire career ladders that run through all library and management positions for candidates with broader education and experience outside of the MLIS: “We have staff at a lot of different levels of education, all of whom really contribute at a high level in public
service and have real initiative and unique ideas.”
At OPL, Library Assistant positions, for which the requirement is a bachelor’s degree or two years of college in conjunction with two years of library experience, perform basic reference, assist librarians with programming and outreach and, with extra training, they may offer storytime or aid in selection of parts of the collection. Senior Library Assistants have supervisory roles and a lot of independence, as well as pay that is comparable to librarians. However, Library Assistant advancement opportunities have a notable cap because there is no track to management positions from there.
WORKFORCE DIVERSITY AND PUBLIC SERVICE
Workforce diversity initiatives and concrete equity goals are propelling this transformation. As library leaders recognize the importance of cultivating teams of library staff that better reflect the communities they serve, they are investing resources and energy into attracting capable local candidates who bring knowledge not attainable through the MLIS. In a profession that is still overwhelmingly white, female, and middle-class,6 the focus is shifting to hiring librarians who have cultural competency and shared backgrounds with library patrons and the greater community. Another objective is to be able to recruit and promote from within an organization and mitigate the attrition of valued employees. Often public libraries have seen excellent staff come and go when they bump up against the barrier of
the MLIS. Patrick Remer describes this frustrating situation: “We’re seeing so much talent within our organization, folks who are in that paraprofessional class . . . they’re capable and skilled at doing the work and they could be working at a professional level, but they’re not permitted to do the work because of strict rules around what tasks are appropriate for which classifications, and that’s a shame. We want to see folks moving up internally.”
Although going back to school to obtain the MLIS works out for some library support staff, obstacles to pursuing an advanced degree are many.
The Bay Area has one of the highest costs of living in the country, with average pay for nonprofessional workers not even remotely approaching a living wage. Most full-time Bay Area Library Assistants and Library Technicians earn somewhere in the range of $5,000 per month.7 Considering that average rent is $2,365 per month for an 826 square
foot apartment in the East Bay, which would not suffice for, say, a family of four, the added expense and time away from work and family to further one’s education is not in reach for many library workers. A master’s degree at the iSchool program at San Jose State University (SJSU), which is the local, relatively economical, online option, costs more than $20,000 in tuition and fees and takes two years of full-time participation to complete.
A central principle of equity work is that individuals must have unhindered access to opportunities.  Though many public library systems support
paraprofessional employees in pursuing an MLIS through time off and tuition reimbursement, and there are scholarships, grants, and student loans available, pursuing the MLIS can be a hardship for some and extraneous for others. Hiring managers have observed that getting the degree is at times merely a formality that has little to do with a staff member’s capacity or the needs of library patrons. Nina Lindsay puts it this way: “The money and the time that they would have to invest might be asking too much from people who are already very qualified and need some very specific and targeted training. Can we look at a path where we identify where the gaps are for this one person and then how do we train to fill those gaps?”
As well, the public library community is questioning what benefit the MLIS is bringing to new librarians, compared to competencies and transferable skills that are not taught in library school. In Deb Sica’s view, “Having a community outreach librarian that knows the community is much more important to me than having a fresh MLIS graduate coming in to try to figure out what’s going on in acommunity . . . if there’s dissonance because of [the MLIS] within the service model then I think it can
be destructive and not constructive.”
While there are undoubtedly graduate-level course offerings that are relevant and applicable to the modern-day public library setting, most courses are elective, so an MLIS graduate applying to be, for example, a children’s librarian could conceivably come having had no coursework or practical experience at all that deals with children’s literature, literacy,
programming, education, or early childhood development.
Consider the potential applicant from another field, who could bring those skills, may already have an advanced degree in another field, is ready to bring their talents to public libraries, but thinks better of it after seeing the compulsory hurdles. From Nina’s perspective, “there’s significant value in master’s level education in various fields that is really important and informative to librarianship as a whole. There are people who come with a master’s in social work or education or public administration, attracted to work in libraries.” Broadening the view of what qualifies someone for librarianship and how candidates can illustrate these aptitudes to get through the screening and ranking processes, brings more quality candidates to the table. It gives hiring teams the discretion to address the needs of specific positions regardless of classification levels.
THE FUTURE OF THE MLIS
Looming over this discussion in the library community are important considerations, including concerns over delegitimization of the library profession, as well as salary degradation. Some wonder, does expanding the possible minimum qualifications devalue an already misunderstood profession? Will library institutions’ funding be further threatened if it seems anyone can do what library professionals do? Further, without the nationally codified set of competencies conveyed by the possession of an
MLIS, is the bar on professional aptitude in fact being lowered?
For many librarians, the traditional linear MLIS career path has opened the door to fulfilling careers, providing a robust scholarly foundation, as well as hands-on practicum opportunities. In the academic environment one builds a professional network,creating relationships and finding lifelong mentors. The hiring managers at ACL, CCCL, and OPL recognize the merit of an MLIS. Patrick Remer emphasizes that acceptable alternative credentials “would have to be compelling; there has to be some real experience and even commensurate education to meet with that.”
Imagine that libraries can promote their most qualified and talented paraprofessional employees, and now they are in satisfying positions at pay grades that might make the MLIS more attainable. Says Patrick, “if we can basically put a steppingstone so that we can accelerate that development
then we all win, right?”
So, if an advanced degree will no longer be considered the only qualifying credential nor even necessarily the best credential for public service and outreach librarian roles, foremost in the minds of library leaders will be what additional training new librarians will need. Deb Sica is clear that all library staff need the library fundamentals: “I think that theoretical pedagogy that comes with the MLIS is what people are worried about forfeiting and I agree with that. I wouldn’t want to forfeit those
ONBOARDING NON-MLIS LIBRARIANS
Administrators at ACL, CCCL, and OPL have ready ideas about areas they are planning to provide extra training and fill in knowledge deficits, whether a new librarian hire has an MLIS, experience working in a library, or expertise from another field or life experience altogether. These include early childhood development, trauma-informed services, restorative justice practices, and library ethics and principles, such as topics of access and the user experience, privacy, intellectual freedom, and development and maintenance of library collections. Additionally, a thorough training program would include curriculum around tangible skillsets, like cataloging. This could encompass the practical, such as Resource Description & Access (RDA) data elements for creating library resource metadata, as well as consideration of larger theoretical questions around the purpose of cataloging information, what the impacts are of choosing one way versus another, and deciding which fields are used for what information in the catalog, or Integrated Library System (ILS).
Training can come through internal channels and resident experts, with libraries developing their own training programs and sharing them throughout the library community. What’s more, the library learning universe is abundant, by way of undergraduate, graduate, and post-degree coursework and ongoing professional development available in all
areas of librarianship.
For example, Infopeople is a project of the CalifaGroup, which is a nonprofit consortium of more than 230 California libraries, that offers one model of training available to California libraries. Continuing education opportunities are tailored to library needs, with custom course design available to individual libraries.[16 ]In addition, the Public Library Association offers a robust menu of learning selections.
Perhaps most useful of all, applied skills will be taught on the job. “Historically, people have mostly learned by doing,” writes Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at
University College London and at Columbia University, “and there is a big difference between communicating the theoretical experience of something and actually going through that experience.”
EMBRACING THE CHANGE
There is a shift happening in East Bay Libraries, and in libraries throughout the country. Its increasing tremors seem to be crumbling the staid certainties once conferred by an MLIS degree. The ambiguity of not having one clear track can be uncomfortable in a profession that has a long history of categorized and certified expertise, as well as a troubling record of exclusion. Although unraveling the MLIS constraint is unlikely to solve the complex dilemma of libraries’ problematic lack of representation,
it brings the profession another step closer to reaching Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) ideals. With each step, libraries will continue to do
what they have always done best: They will adapt and evolve.
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